Extreme landscapes, extraordinary people. We take the New Discovery Sport on a drive through the New Mexico mesa, and meet the locals who embody the state's unstoppable spirit.
Suddenly, it’s... just... there. An immense crack in the land, cutting 250m down into black basalt to reveal a thin strip of water that is actually the mighty Rio Grande river. We get out of our Discovery Sport and stand by the gorge. And, at 2,124m, the air – so pure, yet so thin – leaves you breathless even if the views don’t (and how could they not?)
The sun is intense, yet by evening the light turns greenish gold and evil, anvil-topped clouds gather and broil, stabbing the mesa with lightning as they approach, heralding a deluge of such defined precision that you can see the line of approaching rain on the sand. Then it stops as abruptly as it started, like stepping out of a shower. If you want to know what to pack for New Mexico, my advice would be everything. It’s an extreme landscape with extreme weather.
Along with the landscape and the climate, New Mexico attracts extreme people – those too extreme to exist within the confines of a city, who need the space of a state that boasts just 6.6 people per square kilometre (2.1 million people over 315,000 km2, compared to, say, Paris’s 2.34 million over 105 km2). They need that space to have thoughts and to do things that are too out there for anywhere else: pioneers and visionaries from Aldous Huxley to Carl Jung, DH Lawrence to Dennis Hopper. I’ve come to meet the modern versions – people who embody the state’s unstoppable spirit. People like Chris Dahl-Bredine, who soars over the Rio Grande Gorge.
“I love the sense of freedom you get in New Mexico,” he says. “It’s big enough so that you never stop exploring and the landscape and the light are constantly changing.” Chris was inspired to take up the microlight to photograph the ducks and geese that migrate over the Rio Grande corridor. “They’re a tiny ribbon of life in the middle of the desert. I used to watch them from the ground, until I realised I could join them and learned to fly a microlight. I wanted to be able to feel the air and smell the desert, to see as much as I could.
“There’s room for a tent in the back, and camping stuff. I can travel over 320 km on one tank and get to places you’d never normally find. It’s the ultimate freedom and you can take off and land in less than 50m.”
I ask what it feels like up there. “When I was younger I used to dream about falling off a cliff or a building, and then something would snap and I’d realise I could fly,” says Chris. “There was suddenly this sense of elation – and that’s what microlighting is like.”
"I love the sense of freedom you get in New Mexico. It's big enough so that you never stop exploring."
“Now look,” says Big Al Johnson, “if I tell you an ant can haul a bale of hay, you best go get a harness for it.” He thumps me on the thigh with a meaty fist to underline his point, which doesn’t help my driving over narrow stone-strewn, rubbly roads, past sheer 300m drops into remorseless pine forests. This is in response to my polite British conversational “Really?”, which is in response to him telling me how the jet stream dipped down and caught him on this mountain last winter and 200 km/h winds nearly blew away his snowmobile.
Al’s the real deal: a horseman, extreme skier and snowmobiler; a man mountain of a mountain man in monogrammed turquoise-detailed cowboy boots, Stetson and denim who has been known to hunt bears with a 27 kg bow and arrow. His face is a striated rock face, eroded by hard sun and hard winds. He’s acting as our guide as we take the Discovery Sport to the top of Taos Ski Valley (2,841m) to meet Dave Hahn.
Dave Hahn works in Taos, New Mexico, in winter as a ski patroller, saving lives on the slopes, which are – you guessed – some of the most extreme pistes in North America. He’s the kind of person you need when you’re injured up here in a snowstorm or avalanche. At first glance, he’s no wild man. He has hunched shoulders from 28 years of mountain guiding with heavy packs and a boyish hangdog grin.
Once in a while, though, he makes eye contact and it’s through dark eyes that have seen death and the limits of human life. “We’re pretty proud of Dave round these parts,” says Al. Dave’s summited Everest 15 times, although he has actually been up Everest a further five times – once turning back a mere 75m from the top to save a fellow climber who was in difficulty, and once going up in search of the body of George Mallory, the pioneering British climber of the 1920s.
Dave spends most of his summers up high mountains, so what keeps him coming back to Taos? “In order just to find New Mexico, someone has to be a little bit more adventurous. It’s still something of an unknown, even for most Americans. There’s an exotic aspect to it when people discover it. To be in these mountains is to learn something of the culture, the history here. There are a lot of great dramatic mountains in North America, but to me, the ability to be in the desert and then on the same day to be up at 3,658m at an alpine environment, it’s a unique combination I really like.”
As if to demonstrate its uniqueness, New Mexico interrupts us with an extraordinary light effect. We’ve been standing on a peak and the sun is rising behind our backs. We see a spherical rainbow projected on the sea of cloud below and our shadows are in the centre. We’re Da Vinci men trapped in a circle of light. “I think it’s called a Brocken spectre,” says Dave (he’s right). And we stare, lost in the phenomenon, occasionally waggling our arms around to show our incredulous brains that yes – that’s us.
Surely a lot of mountaineering is about having that unstoppable mental spirit? “Well, you don’t want to pat yourself on the back too thoroughly,” says Dave. “There’s a little bit of me that thinks the mountains might hear me declaring victory here and serve it up big next time. Sure, if it were just a physical pursuit, then it would be an Olympic sport – you could practise on a StairMaster in a wind tunnel. But so much of it ends up being a game of strategy and fortitude, knowing just how much to stick to your guns, but also knowing when it’s smart to run away with your tail between your legs.”
He stuck to his guns on his first ascent of Everest’s North Ridge in 1994 and it was nearly his last: “It tested me pretty thoroughly. I ended up on the top, alone, in the middle of a snowstorm. I ran out of oxygen, ran out of daylight, spent the night out by myself. I went through 60 hours of continuous climbing. I couldn’t sleep because if I did, I knew I’d never wake up again. At the end of all that it was like, ‘Oh yeah, and I got to the top’. It became a smaller part of the whole thing than I expected.
“It’s not a question of pumping your fist in the air and declaring yourself the victor. What I went through would have killed someone who didn’t have the experience or the strength I had, but I was right at that boundary where, if a few more things had gone wrong, I wouldn’t have been able to handle it, either.
“When you read about the greats in history that have been up against it – Shackleton, Messner – they talk about another presence when they got way out there, a feeling that there was another entity that saw them through. The times when I’ve been way out there fighting against the elements, I’ve been a little discouraged to find out that no, it’s just me.
“But I’m also encouraged. I’ve trained myself to rely on my strength and my wits in those situations. There’ve been times when I’ve thought, ‘I’ve got to make it out of this because I wouldn’t want my Dad to find out that I’d screwed up this badly so I’ll have to find some way out of this situation’. Not only would I not want to die, but I wouldn’t want to be humiliated in the process!”
I say he seems pretty humble for a man with these achievements. He smiles. “I don’t think you can work at the levels I’ve worked at for 28 years without learning your place. I have my arrogant moments, but I’m only as good as how I do next time. And that – for now – keeps me pretty honest.”
It’s dusk. We’ve carefully parked the Discovery Sport next to the sheer sides of the Rio Grande Gorge. A car with a trailer bounces down a dirt road towards us and a man with enthusiasm as deep as the gorge emerges. He starts unpacking the tool of his trade – a Dobsonian telescope. Geoff Goins teaches astronomy at the University of New Mexico in Taos and works for the National Park Service as an Interpretative Ranger, two things that conspire to mean he doesn’t get a lot of sleep. “It’s usually 12.30–1am before you’re done. And then you’re all pumped up because you’ve been doing astronomy, so you can’t go to bed right away!”
To the untutored eye, a Dobsonian telescope looks more like a box kite made of bits and bobs. You’d be half right. “John Dobson was a Buddhist monk and monks don’t have a lot of cash,” says Geoff. “He ground his own mirror, cobbled together some cardboard tubes and construction supplies, binocular parts. Then he’d take his telescope and pull it around the streets of San Francisco in a cart until someone said, ‘Hey what’s that?’ Then he’d show the whole neighbourhood the night sky. He got found out – he was sneaking out of the monastery at night – so they took his telescope and threw it into San Francisco Bay. But he was unstoppable. He built another...
“I met John Dobson in 2006.” Geoff shows me the wooden base of his telescope, where there is a message from Dobson and his signature in permanent marker: ‘What one does for others is holy; what one does for oneself is a waste. John Dobson’.
“The sky in New Mexico is unbelievable,” says Geoff who, like Dobson, is keen to share the visible universe with whoever shows an interest. New Mexico’s skies still have some of the best ratings on the Bortle scale – a measure of the level of light pollution in an area. “Everyone is so amazed at how big and clear the sky is here. It’s a sparse population so there’s not much light pollution. This is helped by high elevation and the crisp, dry climate. If there’s no moon, as it gets darker the Milky Way comes out. I had a woman ask me, ‘Is that cloud up there going to be a problem?’ I said, ‘Ma’am, that’s the Milky Way – that’s our galaxy.’ She said, ‘I haven’t seen that since I was a little girl. I thought they got rid of it’.”
We've carefully parked the Discovery Sport next to the sheer sides of the Rio Grande Gorge. A car with a trailer bounces down a dirt road towards us...
I ask if it’s much of a fight to get people aware of light pollution and conserving New Mexico’s dark skies? “Education is a better word. All our new construction has to have a lighting engineer look at the plans and make sure the light shines down where you want it and not at the sky. Seventy-five years ago, electricity was something you didn’t waste. In our modern day, electricity and light are cheap, so we just blast it. It’s a sad statistic that 78 per cent of people on Earth today will never see the Milky Way.”
An hour and a half south of Taos, we visited SITE Santa Fe – one of the most exciting and intelligently curated contemporary art spaces in New Mexico. Director Irene Hofmann has co-curated the exhibition Unsettled Landscapes, which explores artists’ responses to the land. So it seems a good start to ask why the landscape of New Mexico has attracted artists from Georgia O’Keeffe to Ansel Adams? “Having been here four years now, it strikes me that it gives you time for greater reflection. Then there’s the abundance of light which affects your psyche and creativity. It’s not a neutral land, though – it’s highly contested and layered. New Mexico was first (and in part remains) Native American land, then it was a Spanish Kingdom, a Mexican Province, and an American Territory, all before statehood.
Today, this tension of the past and all of these layers of history are present in the current population and culture here. This dynamic conflation of past and present contributes to the richness and the creativity of the region.“ I see this in the Unsettled Landscapes exhibition in the work of artists like Patrick Nagatani, a local Albuquerque photographer whose montages focus on the impact of radiation on the land, and Matthew Buckingham whose The Six Grandfathers is a manipulated photograph of Mount Rushmore as it would be in 502,002CE with the faces of the presidents eroded by wind, ice and time. New Mexico has also borne witness to some of the most savage man-made forces on Earth – something that Californian art collective Futurefarmers reference in their playful but thoughtful piece on Robert Oppenheimer – Forging a Nail.
“Water issues are paramount here,” says Irene. “We have to ask things like, ‘Is our well working?’ – it gives you a real understanding and respect for the land. You can feel the history of America and its expansion west here. The early settlers forged a really harsh life. But they found their inspiration here, and so have I. New Mexico gives me space to think differently. It’s easier to forge something new here.”
I drive out into the desert south of Santa Fe to meet architect Jon Anderson, a man who has built homes in the Albuquerque area that are inextricably linked to the landscape they sit in. Always conscious of sustainability, he makes the best use of natural light without compromising on heat gain, just like the adobe houses in the Native American pueblos: “We work out the depth of the window overhangs to welcome a little morning sun and the low winter sun into the house but block the high hot summer sun.”
Jon’s residential designs focus on the relationship between the structure and its environment. “Each of my commissions should feel like it is part of the land,” he explains. “The area around it should look as it has done for the last 10,000 years. Things grow slow and stay long in the desert. Some of these desert plants – pinyon pines and junipers – are hundreds of years old. It’s a different kind of landscape. This is my way of making sure that I do good work and do the right thing. That architectural philosophy expands into life, y’know.”
A few days later I’m sitting by Red Willow Creek in Taos Pueblo – a Native American village and one of the oldest continually inhabited communities in America, its main adobe structures over 1,000 years old. I dip into a shady shop belonging to Dawn Antelope and have a chat. He was born in the pueblo in 1943. While he’s seen a lot of changes, he believes the land has an enduring spirit that is always present.
That evening in Taos town, things are not quite as peaceful. I head down towards Taos Plaza, flanked by art galleries. “NICE PIXIE BOOTS, MAN,” shouts a man on a street corner, regarding my black suede Paul Smith boots. They are, I’ll admit, slightly pointy. In the plaza I come across a band playing alternative country music – more artists trying to harness this wide-open land, this time in song.
Later, over a soothing margarita (made with agave nectar) in Doc Martin’s, the best restaurant in Taos, I reflect on what I’ve seen. This is a big landscape that’s witnessed big things. To it, we must seem like ants scratching about on its surface, and it will endure long after we’ve all gone. But the spirit of this land will keep on drawing us – the brave, the inspired and the downright foolhardy – as long as we travel the Earth, inspiring new adventurers to make their mark.